14 February 2009

"My Dear Emily" by Joanna Russ

I haven't even updated my course blog this term, so I feel a bit guilty writing here about a story I recently taught, but this story has dug its way into my head and I need to write down some ideas before I start babbling in Babylonian or something...

As I've previously mentioned, I am using David Hartwell's The Dark Descent in my "Murder, Madness, Mayhem" class. It's one of my all-time favorite anthologies -- beautifully organized, with a selection of stories from various genres and eras, many of the stories allowing all sorts of discussion-fueling comparison, making it not just a great read, but a particularly valuable teaching tool.*

I had the students read "My Dear Emily" on the same day they were to read J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Schalken the Painter" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". The idea was to talk about gender roles in the stories, since we've been talking about how writers use various elements in their fiction -- setting, plot, character, etc. (this course is, after all, supposed to be partly an intro to lit class). The students have become, even in a short time, more attentive readers, and now I'm trying to throw in some of the interdisciplinary elements required of the class, hoping to get the students to look at the texts as, among other things, cultural artifacts, since one of the main questions fueling the course is: Why would anybody write this sort of stuff? What do representations of murder, mayhem, and madness do, and why are they so common in so many different sorts of art? How do writers represent violence, and are there moral implications to those representations?

"Schalken the Painter" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" lend themselves well to such discussion, but though "My Dear Emily", a vampire story first published in F&SF in 1962, and reprinted various times (see the comments at this entry at Ellen Kushner's LiveJournal -- note Graham Sleight's information about the two endings; here I'm discussing the original magazine ending, since that's what's included in The Dark Descent, but I expect I'll be writing more about this story in the future...)

"My Dear Emily" has been well discussed from a feminist viewpoint by Jeanne Cortiel, so I won't venture into that territory here -- what interests me about the story at the moment is its use of pronouns.

I've had a strange relationship to Russ's writing, and much of that strange relationship comes, it seems to me, from exactly that -- her writing. Even in her earliest work (and "My Dear Emily" is relatively early), she is an extraordinarily precise stylist in a manner comparable to Thomas Disch and Samuel Delany, and I find myself responding to her work in a way similar to how I seem to respond to Disch -- a passionate admiration for some individual short stories and an inability to appreciate many of the novels. In fact, the techniques that hold my interest within the condensed space of the short fiction may be what prevent me from appreciating the longer fiction. The precision and care of Russ's prose, the intelligence of her formal structures, the intellectual rigor of her purpose -- these qualities carry me through certain stories, giving a real intellectual pleasure, while in a novel-length work they suffocate the pleasure I am able to draw from them, making the reading more dutiful than enjoyable.

But let's talk about pronouns. "My Dear Emily" opens with an excerpt from a letter (datelined "San Francisco, 188-") from a person who states, "I am so looking forward to seeing my dear Emily at last" and who refers to himself as "her dear Will". After the letter, the first sentence is, "Emily came home from school with her bosom friend Charlotte." The two are on a train (with Emily reading "Mr. Emerson's poems"). They talk about "savages" and being carried off, and our first moment of possible confusion occurs:
"The New England look," Charlotte snaps resentfully. She makes her opera-glasses slap shut.

"I should like to be carried off," she proposes; "but then I don't have an engagement to look forward to. A delicate affair."
Grammatically, the "she" in the dialogue tag of the second paragraph refers to Charlotte, but if we are used to the convention of starting a new paragraph for each new speaker, it's entirely possible that we will, on a first reading, assume it is Emily speaking about an engagement of Charlotte's.

Soon, Emily cuts her finger on the opera-glasses, causing her to get some blood on Emerson's poems, a moment rich with all sorts of symbolism that I'm going to ignore right now, because there follows a space break and a new scene that begins:
He wakes up slowly, mistily, dizzily, with a vague memory of having fallen asleep on plush.
Here we might say, echoing Beckett, "Who he?" Readers build possibilities in their minds at this point, and probably settle, provisionally at least, on Will, since he is the only man whose name we know at this moment in the story. The writing in this section is quite different from the writing in the first section -- two long paragraphs finishing with a short final one, as opposed to the short paragraphs of mostly dialogue in the first part of the story. The writing is interior, subjective, a bit overwrought, describing the thoughts of someone apparently buried alive, someone who rises only after the sun vanishes. The last paragraph is a marvelous mixing of tones:
"Alive!" he cries, in triumph. It is -- as usual -- his first word of the day.
The first sentence echoes the classic line from Frankenstein (the movie) and would not be out of place in a 19th century gothic novel. The second sentence is rather humorous because of the change in tone, the recontextualization of the exclamation from something apparently extraordinary to something routine.

The next section begins with the sentence,
Dear Emily, sweet Emily, met Martin Guevara three days after she arrived home.
On a second reading, we will know that the "he" of the second section is this very Martin Guevara, a man both dangerous and attractive (perhaps even revolutionary). On a first reading, though, we are stuck in limbo. The story will continue to present some moments of confusion, because though we have all of the necessary information, often, even up to the end, we don't yet know that we know what we need to know, nor do we know how to apply it. Emily and Martin Guevara talk to each other at a church supper (Emily's father is referred to as the Reverend), and their dialogue is enigmatic:
"The lady of the house," he says.
"I'm back from school."
"And you've learned--?"
"Let me go, please."
"Never."
It's wonderful dialogue -- sharp, intriguing, full of subtext. Emily seems to know Martin Guevara, to have encountered him before, to know something of him, to be used to his ability to appear and disappear with the stealth of a cat. She becomes upset. "Sweet William has to lead her to bed." Guevara, "head framed in an evening window", finds his way in:
"San Francisco is a lovely city. I had ancestors here three hundred years ago."

"Don't think that because I came here--"

"She doesn't," he whispers, grasping her shoulder, "She doesn't know a thing."
Pronoun trouble again. Who she? Emily? Charlotte? It's entirely possible that I have missed a subtlety, or am reading too much into this, but I don't think the question of this antecedent is ever solved. I'm inclined to think Guevara is referring to Charlotte, but it's also possible that, for his own nefarious reasons, his own pleasure in confusion, he has decided to talk to Emily about herself in the third person, to suggest some disassociation of personality.

Later, after Guevara has nuzzled Emily's "abused little neck", the word "vampire" appears for the first time in the story:
"Stop it!" she whispers, horrified. "Stop it! Stop it!"

But a vampire who has found a soul-mate (even a temporary one) will be immoderate. There's no stopping them.

Charlotte's books have not prepared her for this.
(We had learned earlier in the story that while Emily likes to read such things as Emerson's poems, Charlotte likes popular novels.) In the sentence "Charlotte's books have not prepared her for this," the antecedent to "her" is Charlotte -- and yet in the context of the story, it makes more sense for the antecedent to be Emily. It may simply be sloppy writing, but Russ is a fastidious writer, and it makes sense to me that this moment would be one more where pronouns and antecedents are in flux, where the antecedents are either/or and both/and. Throughout the story we are given little pushes to confuse Will/Guevara and Emily/Catherine.

Guevara frees Emily from Will. (And, perhaps, from will -- or at least the will of the society of her day, the will to marriage, the will to domesticity.) In their conversation at the church supper, Emily says to Martin, "If I had your trick of walking like a cat, I could get out of anything." Guevara replies, "I can get out of anything. Out of an engagement, a difficulty. I can even get you out of anything." Emily clearly does not want to be engaged to Will (earlier: "'I love Will dearly.' She wondered if God would strike her dead for a hypocrite."), and here Guevara seems to offer the escape of vampirism. Will infantilizes Emily, seems oblivious to her intelligence and strength, while Guevara engages her intelligence (comparing it, favorably to Charlotte's, who, he says, has "a plentiful lack of brains"), even if ultimately she is just a source of sustenance for him. And ultimately, yes, that is what she is -- despite all his talk of vampirism being the most passionate sort of love and desire, his conversion of her to undeath is a rape -- a sexualized violation of her will (if not her Will). At the end of the story, the other men in Emily's life (her father and Will) destroy Guevara by exposing him to the sun. Emily seeks refuge with Charlotte, who has herself become a vampire, and who warns Emily at an important moment not to go home -- though Emily does not recognize her, because Charlotte wears a veil. She lifts her veil, revealing herself, and then, at the end of the story, Emily flees, seeking help:
--She knows where she can get it. Three hundred feet down the hill in a valley, a wooded protected valley sunk below the touch of the rising sun, therre she runs through the trees, past the fence that separates the old graveyard from the new, expensive, polished granite -- Charlotte is her friend, she loves her: Charlotte in her new home will make room for her.
The pronouns and antecedents now all work together: "She loves her" is true of both Emily and Charlotte. Assuming Emily's optimism and trust are warranted, and there's no reason not to assume so, both women will, in fact, make room for the other. The help and safety offered by the men was an illusion; sometimes tempting, sometimes confusion, but always violent and destructive. A clear understanding of the relationships proved impossible: too much was hidden, too much was unspoken, too many words wouldn't quite line up. Charlotte will, Emily expects, resolve this for her. Their knowledge will align. Their words will make sense together.


*Some folks have asked which stories I'm using. I'd love to use them all, but alas need to fit in a bunch of other texts as well, so I had to make some painful choices, and, because of length or because of needs for comparison, I ended up having to throw out some of my favorite stories in the book. (To somewhat make up for this, I gave the students a paper assignment in which they have to write about a story of their choice that we aren't reading for class.) Anyway, the stories, in the order that we read them, are: Stephen King, "The Reach"; Harlan Ellison, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs"; Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown" (which I got to teach in the town where Hawthorne died!); Lucy Clifford, "The New Mother" (if you haven't read this story, read it -- utter weird genius); Shirley Jackson, "Summer People"; Clive Barker, "Dread"; William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily"; Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"; Edgar Allan Poe, "Fall of the House of Usher"; J. Sheridan Le Fanu, "Schalken the Painter"; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"; Joanna Russ, "My Dear Emily"; Charles Dickens, "The Signal-Man"; Joyce Carol Oates, "Night-Side"; Fritz Leiber, "Belsen Express"; Robert Bloch, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"

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